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Guest Post: The Evolution Of Survival Horror Games


Guest Post: The Evolution Of Survival Horror Games

[Promoted from our Community Manager’s inbox, here’s another fantastic Guest Writer! This piece comes from community member, Adrian Rawlings. Adrian is a TV and horror blogger.  Look to him for the scoop on hit movies and TV shows, horror, tech reviews, how-to’s, and more. You can follow Adrian on Twitter.]

Most games from yesteryear deemed “Survival Horror” probably wouldn’t give you much of a scare today.  In fact, they would probably make you laugh—the exact opposite of the desired effect.  But that doesn’t mean that zombies, ghosts, psychos, and other things that go bump in the night didn’t give us a good scare at one point—and continue to today.

Let’s take a look at how survival horror games have evolved over the years and where they are going.

1980s – A New Genre

At the dawn of the video game revolution in the 80s, new game genres were being created as quickly as games were being developed.  And it wasn’t just plumber-jumping platformers and spy-car scrollers.  One such genre that arose from the chaos was survival horror, and its respective games paved the way for decades of both terrifying and compelling gameplay.

Sweet Home (1989)

Sweet Home (1989)

A game that helped define the genre, and had close ties to the future Resident Evil title, was Capcom’s Sweet Home for the NES.  With plenty of puzzle solving, limited inventory, few supplies, risk of permanent death, an actual storyline—and of course, horrifying creatures—players had to be smart about how they played, creating a non-casual, tense experience.  Thus, survival horror was born.

1990s – Mastering the Genre

Expanding on the interest in the new genre, publishers and developers started to roll out games using the latest next gen technologies—upping the ante with CD-quality sound and more realistic graphics.  Some early 90s games were met with success, like the 1993 critically acclaimed release Alone in the Dark.  Others had undesired results, like the full-motion video slumber-party-disaster, Night Trap, which not only embarrassed the genre but also led to other industry-changing events, like the establishment of the ESRB game rating system.

Left:  Night Trap (1992)  Right: Alone in the Dark (1993)

Left: Night Trap (1992)
Right: Alone in the Dark (1993)

Fortunately, despite the setbacks, the genre prevailed just a few years later with big hits like the first two titles in the Resident Evil franchise and Silent Hill later in the decade.  These games honed what their predecessors had established, solidifying the genre.  Survival horror was no longer confined to late night game playing alone with the lights off (though that was, and remains, the best way to play).  Gamers were talking about the games’ controller-flying surprises and mind-bending horrors.  But most importantly, they were spreading the word to friends.

Survival horror had become a household staple.

2000s – Emphasis on Action

As publishers and developers sought to take advantage of next-generation systems and the growing mass of gaming consumers, the gaming industry as a whole saw a shift.  Game budgets and production value increased.  So did sales demands, and to appeal to larger audiences video games in general became much more action-packed.  This had an impact on the tried and true fundamentals that shaped survival horror to begin with; limited ammo, evasive tactics, and compelling story.

However, some games were able to successfully hybridize survival horror with action, creating ambiance and tension with cinematic, movie style interactive cut-scenes and orchestral, atmospheric sounds in new settings.  Such games included Cold Fear (2005) and Dead Space (2008), to name a few.  Others—even genre-defining series like Resident Evil—abandoned convention, opting instead to create action shooters and deviating from original storytelling.  Ick, remember Resident Evil 6?  Hopefully not.  Popularity even forced some down the dreaded movie route, forever lost to late night movie channels.


Dead Space (2008)

Dead Space (2008)

Today – Return to Form

Though the genre has seen pretty drastic changes over the past couple of decades, many for the worse, there’s still hope.  Some of the latest titles, including this year’s The Last of Us, have returned to the very roots of survival horror with rich story arcs and dynamic gameplay—proving that you don’t have to abandon what’s good for the sake of what’s new.  And most importantly, fans are responding.  The Last of Us has seen blockbuster success and a sequel featuring new characters is already in the works.

Sure, societal standards for what’s “scary” may evolve in the future, and so will games.  But so long as systems continue to improve and publishers give developers the time and resources needed to create compelling stories (and don’t remove “survival” from “survival horror”), we can expect more goose bump inducing goodness in the future.

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